By Mariann Martin/Staff Writer
For most of his 71 years, David Dill lived in the Short Tail Springs area, sometimes called “Dilltown.”
But he never saw the force of a storm like the one that drove a pine branch through his living room ceiling and half-buried a crowbar in his front yard.
“I saw it coming over the hill and I closed the door against the wind. Then I called out, ‘God, is this it?’” Dill said Saturday morning as he sat hunched in a chair his front yard, watching friends and family work to clear dozens of trees splintered around his home and down his long, gravel driveway.
“I’ve seen storms before but nothing like what hit yesterday,” he added.
The storms and tornadoes that pummeled the Chattanooga area on Friday — injuring at least 33 people and damaging hundreds of homes — was the second -largest outbreak in the last 25 years, according to local experts. There were no reported fatalities.
Across the country, at least 38 people were killed in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio in wave after wave of massive thunderstorms and possible tornadoes, according to The Associated Press. Most of the deaths occurred in Indiana and Kentucky.
The weather service issued 297 tornado warnings across the country Friday and early Saturday, compared to 189 warnings issued in all of February.
While they did not compare to the nightmare storms of last April 27, the number of storms and the severity were unusual for this early in the year, meteorologists said.
And with a warmer weather pattern in place because of the La Niña climate cycle this year, the Chattanooga area may continue to see more severe storms.
“When I first came here, many people believed you couldn’t have tornadoes here — the myth was that the mountains protected us,” WRCB-TV 3 meteorologist Paul Barys said. “Most people now realize that’s just not true. It has nothing to do with anything. If you have thunderstorms where you live, you can have a tornado.”
Two significant waves of severe weather pummeled east and middle Tennessee on Friday, injuring 45 people and causing damage in 18 counties, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reported.
In about nine hours, 75 tornado warnings were issued for the state.
By 9 p.m. Saturday, at least one tornado touchdown was confirmed in Hamilton County, and Bradley County officials said they believed the damage in their county was most likely a tornado.
Forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had issued the highest risk level for the outbreak days before the storm, but much of the worst devastation swept through states farther to the north.
Still, Barys said the storms rank second in his 26 years reporting storms in the Chattanooga area. Third would be the 1997 tornado that hit East Brainerd.
“If you take out April, these would be the worst,” said Barys, who was on the air for eight or nine hours Friday as warning after warning came out.
In Hamilton County, the hardest-hit areas were north of Harrison on Short Tail Springs Road and near Ooltewah on Snow Hill Road. The National Weather Service classified the damage near Island Cove Marina and Hunter Road as an EF1 with winds up to 110 m.p.h. That classification would likely be increased, officials said.
Bradley County saw damage on Freewill Road and Candies Lane, with two people injured and dozens of homes damaged. Dan Howell, spokesman for the county’s emergency management agency, said he saw twisted trees from an aerial survey.
“I don’t think it was just straight-line winds,” he said. Officials were expected to visit Bradley County today.
Some homes and businesses also were damaged in Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties.
Dozens of volunteers started showing up at 8 a.m. at Ooltewah High School, the command center for tornado relief efforts. Men, women, girls and boys all lined up in the school’s main office to put their names on a list, the address of the house they were volunteering at and their skills. Some had chain saws with them, others were there to help clean up and other simply to do whatever was needed.
As bad as the storms were on Friday, they did not begin to compare to those that devastated the region last year.
The conditions were not the same and because it was so much earlier in the year, the sun just wasn’t strong enough to heat the storm cells, meteorologists said.
“The thunderstorms were supercells but they were much smaller [than last April] and there weren’t as many. It wasn’t warm enough for long enough,” Barys said.
He said the storms were also moving much more slowly, only about 40 to 50 miles an hour compared to nearly 60 miles an hour last year.
“It was nothing compared to last April; hopefully that was a lifetime event,” said Sam Roberts, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
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Coming only one year after last year’s storms, the droning monotony of chain saws and the rows of electrical repair trucks lining the roads seemed like a repeat of a bad nightmare.
It is a repeat that has become more common in recent years.
Before Friday, Hamilton County had had 21 tornadoes since 1950, but only six between 1950 and 2009. From 2009 though 2011, it had 15, and most of those were last year.
Barys said he believes weather follows a pattern — there was a wave of tornadoes in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. This may just be another wave that will eventually subside, he said.
“The theory is these things run in 25- to 30-year patterns,” he said.
For William Rose and his family, the back to back storms are a reality — his house was hit by last year’s tornadoes.
“We’ve lived in this house since 1982 and these are the only two years we’ve ever been hit,” Rose said Saturday as the family made a stop at Ooltewah High School to get some chain saws. “I can’t believe we got hit back to back.”
On Friday, Rose saw the tornado was approaching the Davis Mills Road area. He and his wife and son, Tommy, ran downstairs to hide underneath the staircase. Tommy huddled over his parents like a big gorilla, the older Rose said
“Lord, just let us survive this; Lord, just let us survive this,” the three of them prayed over and over while the tornado came through.
When it was over three minutes later, William Rose and his family realized how lucky they had been.
“The was destruction everywhere,” he said. “Trees fallen all around my house. Half of my roof was gone.
Warmer-than-average temperatures on land and in the Gulf of Mexico could mean more severe storms this year, said Alan Reppert, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.
The 30-day-outlook for the region predicts higher than average temperatures and rainfall, continuing the pattern in place for most of the winter.
However, forecaster do not think this year will be as severe as last year, he added.
“It’s much earlier than we normally see something like this,” Reppert said. “Normally, we are seeing more in the way of hail and strong winds this time of year, not a major tornado outbreak like this.”
The upside of the recent swarm of tornadoes is that county officials have been better prepared.
In Bradley County, the response to Friday’s storms pretty much ran like clockwork, Howell said.
“All the department heads, mayors, everyone seemed to know what their duties were without asking,” Howell said. “The April 27 storms were certainly great preparations for this year. It taught us how to response.”
Hamilton County emergency management director Bill Tittle agreed. The agency had begun preparation as early as Monday, coordinating with highway officials and stockpiling chain saws.
“Unfortunately, we’ve learned from experience,” he said. “I think aid was given to people pretty quickly.”
The Bradley County Baptist Association was in place by 8 a.m. Saturday, Howell noted, with 10 crews ready to spread into hard-hit areas with chain saws and other equipment.
“When I did an aerial tour around 11, I could already see blue tarps on roofs everywhere,” he said.
Barys said he thinks more people have bought weather radios since last year and pay more attention to warnings issued.
“Forget about sirens; you’ve got to get a weather radio,” he said. “You should at least be able to know it’s coming.”
Staff writers Perla Trevizo and Randall Higgins contributed to this report.
By Perla Trevizo/Staff Writer
Storm damage in McMinn County is in some ways less visible than last year’s widespread destruction. Friday’s tornado was not as long as last year’s, about 8 to 9 miles long, but it covered a wider area, McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said.
It hit in the Little Mountain Road area, very close to the area hit by last year’s tornadoes and near the Cherokee National Forest.
In some areas entire trailers have been swept away. In others, houses are missing roofs, and brick and metal workshops and sheds were completely destroyed. Between 50 and 60 structures were damaged, but only six or seven people were injured and no one died. Many of the roads are closed until utility workers can get the power lines back up, officials said.
Friday afternoon Jeff Peery was checking his mailbox before letting his wife and two daughters out of the truck when he saw a tornado headed toward him.
He turned around and tried to drive away but the tornado was catching up to him. He made a left turn as soon as he could while the tornado kept going straight. They were safe.
When the 53-year-old farmer drove back to his home on County Road 875, he saw how close a call his family had had.
His roof was swept away. There’s only a concrete base where his tool shed used to be. His 100-year-old red barn was totaled.
But the first thing he thought of was the fact that they were alive.
“I was thanking the Lord we were all right,” he said.
“[The destruction] didn’t matter then. Now, cleaning up, it’s different,” he added, standing amid piles of debris that included a bed frame.
He has lived 22 years in those 400 acres, raising cattle and farming. Twenty-two years of building, he said.
Now his priority is finding a place to live and about his barn and shed, “I’ll salvage what I can. Get a bulldozer and set the barn on fire. I don’t know what else to do.”
Hundreds of volunteers have stopped by to lend a hand. Many are friends and family, but some are strangers, Peery said.
Peery also lost a horse and a cow — there were four dead horses in the county. He still had to bury his horse Saturday evening.
The metal from the sheds are wrapped around the trees across from his house like tinsel on Christmas trees. The woods look like a cotton field, but instead of cotton, the shrubs are covered with yellow pieces of insulation.
“Unfortunately I saw all of this last year,” said Gentry, “but I was not prepared to see this kind of damage a second time.”
Driving on some parts of the curvy Short Tail Springs Road in Harrison, it’s hard to believe it was one of the hardest hit areas. There are some uprooted and broke-off trees on both side of the road.
But in the 7400 block of Davis Mill Road, the scenery changes drastically. Piles of debris lie where family homes used to be and blue tarps replace rooftops.
The neighborhood is mostly quiet, almost deserted, except for the continuous sound of the chain saws cutting the massive trees that have split houses in two.
Valerie Holder had just walked outside the family’s trailer when she saw the tornado forming across the road.
“I came out the back door and heard a roar,” she said while taking a break from cleaning up. “I knew it was coming and all I could think of was my baby.”
She ran back inside to tell her mother and to grab her 19-month-old daughter.
Her husband grabbed the baby and crouched in the hallway. She threw pillows and blankets over them and try to cover them. Her mother stayed by the window watching as the tornado got closer and closer.
“There was stuff flying all over the place, trees were falling,” said Donna Holder, Valerie’s mother. And even though she was scared, she was trying keep the trailer’s wall from giving in.
“I was trying to be strong for all of them,” she said outside her home.
They feel lucky. A tree fell over Donna Holder’s bedroom and her husband’s workshop is basically gone. The children’s swing set flew several feet. But no one was hurt.
At about 1 p.m. Cathie Wallace was at work when she heard a tornado had hit her neighborhood in Harrison.
She immediately called her neighbor in the Woodland Bay subdivision.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Your house is gone,” her neighbor replied.
Wallace started trying to get home. Traffic was backed up and by the time she tried to get to Ooltewah High School, where the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office set up a command center, exit 11 off I-75 had been closed.
Wallace didn’t get to see what was left of her house until Saturday morning.
“I was just bawling all the way in [through the neighborhood],” she said as she continued to pack whatever was salvageable: some armchairs, tables, her china.
All she could think of were her five cats: Zoe, Jollie, Claire, Uma and Mattie.
“You can replace material things,” she said, “but my cats are my babies.”
She was able to find three of them and is hoping Uma and Mattie will soon show up.
The second floor of her house is gone. Insulation is sticking out between the ceiling and the walls. The blue walls of her bedroom are cracked. It feels like the inside of a carnival’s crooked house, with bumpy, uneven floors.
“It’s like a bomb went off,” she said.
The entire house shifted to the left several feet, but she said they will rebuild.
“We are a very tight neighborhood. We get together for dinner once a month. When I finished the addition to my house, I had 45 people in here,” she said. “We are all friends, we care about each other.”
Ken and Melanie Lehmann drove in from Lincoln, Neb., Thursday afternoon to look for a home in the Harrison area. Friday afternoon they were heading south on Short Tail Springs Road, their real estate agent a short distance behind them.
The Lehmanns pulled into Lakewood Baptist Church to wait for their agent to catch up. And then they saw it coming, down over the hill from Highway 58, trees bending like a wave in front of the wind.
“I panicked,” Melanie Lehmann, 51, said. “I realized we have nowhere to go. My husband screamed ‘get down’ and we ducked. And then the debris started hitting everything.”
Nebraska has tornadoes, she said, but she’s never been in one.
The Lehmanns felt their car lift; a shingle was shoved under the tire.
“I didn’t want to look anymore: I just started praying,” Melanie said. “Duck is all you got.”
When it was all over, they got out to leveled trees and debris. Just up the road, a man stood next to his home. All that was left of the first level was a green- and red-striped couch.
A tree had fallen on the truck belonging to their daughter and son-in-law, who had been a short distance behind them. The camper was smashed; the couple was fine.
Both couples stood in the church parking lot as the clouds cleared and the muggy air hung heavy.
Melanie Lehmann insisted they may still move to the Chattanooga area; she just doesn’t want to repeat Friday afternoon.
“Everyone is fine, but I don’t ever want to do this again.”
She added, “And I want a written apology.”
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...